When they first met in Paris in 1958, he was a struggling artist named Christo Javacheff. Arefugee from Communist Bulgaria, he had smuggled himself out of the Communist bloc in 1957 at age 21 in a freight train, leaving behind his brothers, Anani and Stefan, mother, Tzveta, and father, Vladimir, a chemist in the textile industry.
Jeanne-Claude was the pampered stepdaughter of French general Jacques de Guillebon, a World War II hero. The couple shared not only an intense passion for life and each other, but they also bore similar emotional scars, his from privations endured under Communism, hers from having been shuttled between families while her mother, Précilda, served on the staff of the Free French Army. They had something else in common. “We were both born on the same day in 1935,” says Jeanne-Claude. “Next June 13 we will be 140 years old.”
They met after Jeanne-Claude’s mother had asked Christo, who was then earning a meager living painting portraits, to paint her family. Soon the Guillebons were treating him like a son. Such acceptance, however, did not extend to his suitability as a husband for their daughter. When Jeanne-Claude moved in with Christo after the birth of their son (Cyril Christo, now a 44-year-old poet), Précilda severed contact with the couple for two years. They were married on November 28, 1962. “When we met, I was not an artist,” says Jeanne-Claude. “I became an artist only for love of Christo. If he had been a dentist, I would have become a dentist.”
In a maid’s room in Paris that he used as a studio, Christo had been wrapping cans, bottles, telephones, even tables and chairs, in canvas, bedsheets or plastic—transforming the everyday into mysterious packages. For his first one-man show, in 1961 in Cologne, he wrapped a typewriter, a stove, a Renault car and two pianos. The works continued to grow in size and scope. In response to the recently built Berlin Wall, he and Jeanne-Claude blocked a Parisian street for hours in 1962 with an “iron curtain” of old oil barrels. In 1964, Manhattan gallery owner Leo Castelli invited Christo to show his work in a group exhibition. Enticed by the art scene in New York City, Christo and his familymoved there that same year. The couple’s projects got progressively bigger and more ambitious—they wrapped the Kunsthalle museum in Bern, Switzerland, in 1968, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1969 and a mile-long stretch of coast outside Sydney, Australia, the same year. But it was two later projects—Valley Curtain, Grand Hogback, Rifle, Colorado, 1970-72 and Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76—and the documentary films about them, that put the Christos on the artistic map.
Jeanne-Claude remembers the struggles persuading ranchers to go along with stringing the nylon panels across their land for Running Fence. The couple had to explain the difference between art that depicts reality and art like theirs that uses the real world to create its own reality.
“I’ll never forget, one of our ranchers had this typical ranch house with a bad painting of a sunset,” says Christo.
“I said, ‘I can see that you enjoy the sunset, ’ ” interrupts Jeanne-Claude, who often doesn’t let her husband finish a thought. “ ‘ But you do not tell your daughters to go look at the painting every night. You go out and you watch the real sunset.’ And he said, ‘I got it, I got it.’ ”
After the success of Wrapped Reichstag in 1995—five million people came to see the work and it received world-wide press coverage—the Christos redoubled their efforts to get approval for The Gates project. A friend persuaded philanthropist/financier Michael Bloomberg to visit their studio. Bloomberg was then on the board of the Central Park Conservancy, a group of New Yorkers who have given some $300 million for the park’s restoration over the past quarter century and are responsible for its maintenance. After the visit, Bloomberg tried to persuade fellow members of the conservancy to endorse the project, but he got nowhere. Then two things happened. Terrorists attacked the WorldTradeCenter on September 11, 2001, and two months later, Michael Bloomberg was elected mayor of New York City.
In the months following the attacks, tourists all but stopped coming to the city. For a new mayor facing a budget crisis, this was a problem that had to be dealt with at once. Among other initiatives, he directed Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris to arrange a meeting with the Christos. “New York was still very raw,” she recalls. “We were trying to bring dynamic events and positive energy to the city.”
The Christos turned to Vince Davenport, a retired general contractor, and his wife, Jonita, who had both worked on other Christo projects, to figure out the practical details of The Gates’ construction. Vince determined that digging holes, as the Christos originally planned, would be too disruptive. “If you drill the rock, what do you do with all the soil,” says Vince, “and then you have to put in new soil and plant it, and what do you do with electrical and sewer lines?” He telephoned Christo. “I know that aesthetically you won’t like the idea,” he remembers saying, “but what if we use weighted bases to support the poles? What if you tell them that there will be absolutely no holes in Central Park?”